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SOS: A call to action to Save Our Schools

By Mia Munn
Posted Thursday, February 24, 2011

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Pittsboro, NC - Our school system, like our nation, state, county, and individual households, is facing difficult decisions concerning next year’s budget. I am writing to ask you to advocate for budget cuts in the Chatham County Schools that will have the least impact to the students in our schools. I will give you a little context, and then my suggestions. I’ve been told that this is too long and too detailed. I know that it is more than you probably want to know. Please take this as it is, an outpouring of my concern for our school system. I hope you will take the time to read my missive.

Most of the school budget is personnel cost. The total of state, local, and federal operating budget revenue is $75.9M. Total salaries and benefits are about $58M. Of that, about $38.9M comes from the state to provide a basic level of staffing. Local funds make up another $14.2M. The rest comes from federal programs and child nutrition. Over the past two budget years, state funding has decreased. Most of those decreases have offset by federal money, but that money comes to an end this school year. Our local funding has remained steady over that period despite the county's budget challenges. Local funds are the only area where the district has flexibility in how the money is spent.

The district needs to find about $5.2M for next year to make up for the loss of ARRA and other federal funds that have replaced state funding decreases in the last two years. (The exact amount won't be known until the state passes a budget, but that may not be until late summer, and we can’t wait until then.) The district will use $2.5 million of the existing fund balance (the rainy day fund of about $3 million built up over the past few years) to offset some of the budget cuts. That money won't be available the following year, so 2012-13 may be just as, or more, challenging than 2011-12. In order to balance the district's budget for next year, expenses need to be cut about $2.7 million next year compared to this year. There may be some non-personnel cuts that can be made, but not many: that is where most of the shortfall in the past two years has been covered (things like staff development and supplies).

Superintendent Logan has a 60/40 split in budget cuts between instructional services and central services. Instructional services make up about 79% of the operating budget, and includes "teachers, teacher assistants, months of employment for assistant principals, CTE teachers, and custodial and clerical hours" at schools. Central Services are the other 21% of the budget, and includes "Instructional support and clerical hours" as well as "Contracted services and athletic transportation". Central Services also includes Central Office Administration personnel cost of between $3.8 million and $5.6 million. (The lower number comes from Mr. Logan’s budget presentation to the board on February 14, and the higher number from salary files provided by the district’s Chief Operating Officer in January.)

Both scenarios Mr. Logan has presented, reconfiguring the K-8 schools (which the board took out of consideration on February 21) or leaving the school configuration the same, have the same 60/40 ratio of instructional and other (central services). I believe, and have expressed to Mr. Logan and the board, that they need to look for every non-instructional cut possible before affecting the classroom. Based on the current salaries files, state and local staffing guidelines, and other documents, I have come up with some suggestions:

Benchmark our Central Office positions against comparable counties, and reduce our central office staffing levels to the average of those counties. We very effectively using benchmarking to reduce staffing and make our Child Nutrition program fiscally stable two years ago. Mr. Logan gave me this list of counties he considers comparable to Chatham: Carteret, Davie, Edgecombe, Haywood, Pender, Richmond, and Vance.

Assistant Superintendents: Haywood and Pender County have only one assistant/associate Superintendent. Carteret, Davie, Edgecombe, Richmond, and Vance each have two. The Assistant Superintendent for HR has one director, five specialists, and one admin assistant as direct reports. The Assistant Superintendent for Auxiliary Services has the director of transportation, the director of maintenance, a construction manager, and an admin assistant as direct reports. If those two assistant Superintendents were eliminated, the directors under them could fill their roles. The primary loss would be of advisors to Mr. Logan. (Possible savings = $320K)

Directors: We have 10 Directors, as well 3 people with "Officer" in their title (Chief Operating Officer, Compliance Officer, and Public Information Officer). I was unable to find detailed information on the other counties’ director-level employees, but my impression is that we frequently have a Director in positions where the comparable counties have a manager. Four directors are completely funded from local sources, and so are not filling state- or federally-mandated roles. I would suggest four to be the minimum number of directors to downsize, though not necessarily the four people that are locally funded. (Possible savings = $400K)

Finance Department: Comparable counties, with similar numbers of students, employees, and schools, should need similar numbers of finance positions. CCS staff should be able to get information on numbers of positions for this and other areas from the comparable counties. Our Finance Department includes a Chief Operating Officer, an Administrative Assistant, and six other employees. (This does not include the Child Nutrition Director, Child Nutrition Administrative Assistant, and Child Nutrition Accounting Manager.) (Possible savings, 1 position = $58K)

Human Resources Department: Comparable counties, with similar numbers of employees, should need similar numbers of finance positions. Our HR Department includes an Assistant Superintendent, a Director, an Administrative Assistant, and five other employees. (Possible savings, 1 position = $57K)

Administrative Assistants: There are 16 employees with the title Administrative Assistant or Office Support in our Central Office. In business, it is rare to have an Administrative Assistant below the Vice President level; directors do not have their own administrative assistants, particularly not multiple admins in the same department. CCS has at least nine Administrative Assistants to Directors. I suggest that we could eliminate at least six of these positions. (Possible savings = $314K)

Other Central Office Departments: I am less familiar with other departments, but a similar exercise should be done for all central services.

There are no significant building projects in the district for the next few years, so though the Construction Manager has been an asset during the building of Pollard and the addition to Northwood, we should evaluate whether he is still needed now. Alternatively, the Construction Manager could take on the duties of the director of maintenance, and that position could be eliminated. The advantage there is that the construction manager has a general contractors' license, which would allow small renovations to be done in house. (Possible savings = $100K)

Review all staffing levels against the state staffing guidelines. The district adopted its own staffing guidelines, with higher staffing levels for some positions in 2009. We should consider returning to the lower, state levels. Any non-classroom position in excess of the guidelines should be eliminated. In particular, there should be an audit of custodian staffing, and school clerical positions should be reduced to 2008-09 levels (there have been significant increases in the past 2 years). The district guidelines lead us to have about 3.5 more Assistant Principals then the state guidelines, and those positions should be considered for cuts, particularly at smaller schools and schools with younger students.

Ask Mr. Logan to forego voluntarily his potential bonus for the next school year. Though this is a very small amount of money, it is an important symbol, and would be well received by the teachers and other staff. Neal Pedersen, superintendent of Chapel Hill Carrboro Schools, voluntarily turned down his bonus two years ago when the economy first declined.

Do not pay for PSAT tests for any freshman or sophomore who has not completed Algebra I. Tests for students who have completed Algebra I are funded by the State.

Means test district payment for AP exam fees: only pay for students eligible for Free or Reduced Lunch (a proxy for poverty).

Two years ago, the board eliminated the French teacher at Northwood because class enrollment was so small. French students were able to take classes online through the NC Virtual Public School. Though there is a cost to the district for NCVPS classes, using them more extensively may allow the district eliminate some high school teachers that teach courses with very small enrollment, without disadvantaging the students.

I estimate that these cuts could cover more than half of the $2.7M we need for to find for next year, with almost no impact on classroom staffing. I am sure that others in the community can come up with other ideas that can produce significant savings with little impact to the classroom. Already, a group of parents is researching an alternative school schedule used in Wilkes County, which could save perhaps $1 million a year. I hope Mr. Logan considers offering these types of budget cuts as options to the school board, but I fear that he will stick with his arbitrary 60/40 split, which would cost about 40 teachers or assistants their jobs and have a significant impact on students in the classroom.

In the longer term, we need to look at overall school funding and programming at the schools in the different parts of the county. Small schools do appear to have higher per pupil staffing costs than do larger schools. However, there is also a cost to the students who have very long bus rides to get to consolidated schools. (I think the North Chatham/Pollard families are experiencing that now.) There may need to be changes to school configuration in the longer term, but those decisions need to be well thought out, adequately planned, and funded.

Please use the information I have provided as you see fit. I’ve included contact information for the school board and the superintendent below. There are four opportunities for people to speak in front of the board before a budget is adopted.

March 7, 6:00 pm, Central Office board room, Pittsboro (Mr. Logan presents alternatives to the board and the board discusses options)
March 14, 6:30 pm, Jordan-Matthews Media Center, Siler City (further discussion and refinement of alternatives)
April 4, 6:00 pm, Central Office board room, Pittsboro (budget hearing)
April 11, 6:30 pm, Northwood Media Center, Pittsboro (board adopts a budget)

If you want to join with others in the community who are advocating for the types of changes I’ve suggested, please let me know.

Thanks for your patience in reading this far,

Mia Munn



Deb McManus, School Board Chair
11 Pine Forest Drive
Siler City, NC 27344

Gary Leonard, School Board Vice-Chair
415C Fall Creek Church Road
Bennett, NC 27208

David Hamm, School Board Member
97 Royal Pines Court
Pittsboro, NC 27312

Flint O’Brien, School Board Member
30125 Porter
Chapel Hill, NC 27517

Del Turner, School Board Member
P.O. Box 147
Gulf, NC 27256

Robert Logan, Superintendent of Chatham County Schools
P.O. Box 128, 369 West Street
Pittsboro, North Carolina 27312

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SOS: A call to action to Save Our Schools